PRESENTING THE NEW New Music Seminar — smaller, tighter, more industry-focused, claims co-founder/ director Mark Josephson, who’ll preside over the 14th annual convention, which runs Tuesday through Saturday at the New York Sheraton.

To doubters, Josephson croons a tune not unlike Billy Ray Cyrus, who recently answered cynics with “It Won’t Be the Last.”

“Seminar-bashing has been an intramural activity for years,” Josephson said. “It’s really amounted to two criticisms: too large and too unfocused. We’ve tried … to take care of that.”

Management and numerous staff changes at NMS (co-founder Tom Silverman sold his share to Josephson last summer, while back-office workers were substantially reduced) caused some in the industry to question whether this year’s event would take place.

This is a switch from years past, when NMS was the premier gathering spot for alternative music artists, exex and assorted hangers-on.

But NMS 14 will have a new venue, a sold-out exhibition area, a new series of symposiums that will be open to industryites by invitation only, and a reduced number of panels scheduled so special-interest groups will be able to do their seminar-surfing in a single day.

Keynote speeches will be given by Boy George and by Chuck D of Public Enemy.

While this year’s NMS will have “a slightly smaller number of delegates due to the economy and a slight coldness on the part of the business,” Josephson said, “next year will be stronger because people realize it’s evolving and improving.”

The New Music Nights showcase series has also been adjusted. Wristbands will not be sold to the public this year, and the number of venues has been trimmed. Major shows have also been reduced from last year’s five to two, this year to feature one major showcase in rock and dance music.

ALTHOUGH GARTH Brooks has radio programmers nationwide eagerly awaiting his latest album, “In Pieces,” some retailers are concerned they will be shut out of the profits from sales of the country music phenom’s sixth disc.

On the eve of the release of the first single, “Ain’t Going Down (Till the Sun Comes Up),” retailers who carry used CDs are already drawing their battle lines, some indicating they may stop carrying the singer’s catalog. Brooks has stated publicly he will not allow his album to be distributed to stores that sell used product, and CEMA, the distributor of the singer’s label, Liberty, is supporting the effort.

To thwart bootlegging and leaks to radio, marketers at Brooks’ record label are not sending out advances of the disc — which has been moved up to Aug. 31 from Sep. 7 — preferring to ship copies to retail and the media on the same day.

RAPPER EAZY-E, aka Eric Wright, is close to landing a new distribution deal for his Ruthless Records label with Sony-affiliated Relativity Records, according to sources. The move could also signal a resolution to the rapper’s lawsuit against Sony Music.

The deal, if consummated, comes less than a month after Ruthless severed its ties with Priority Records, which also distributes releases from Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, former bandmates of Wright. The trio comprised the pioneering group N.W.A that is widely credited with starting the gangsta rap genre.

Priority is also home to several top selling rap artists, including controversial rapper Ice-T, who signed with Priority (Daily Variety, Feb. 3) following his release from his Warner Bros. contract Jan. 28.

The move also raises eyebrows since Wright is embroiled in a highly publicized lawsuit against Sony Music, which holds a 50% stake in Relativity.

Wright’s lawsuit alleges that Sony Music exex and Dre conspired to intimidate acts away from Wright’s control and force him to cancel contracts of artists signed to his Comptown Records label.

Relativity, headquartered in Hollis, N.Y., with offices in Torrance, distributes several successful niche labels, including Metal Blade and Mammoth. The company has made inroads into the rap marketplace over the past 18 months, but the Ruthless pact could solidify its presence.

Ruthless is preparing to deliver its first three projects, as part of an 18 -project slate over the next year. Sources said the Ruthless deal could be worth $ 45 million in the first year, which could come close to doubling Relativity’s bottom line. Sources estimated the 1992 tally at around $ 60 million.

Sources said interest was also expressed by BMG, but the Sony deal is more attractive as it could be tied into a settlement of the suit.

A spokesperson for Relativity would not comment. Wright’s manager, Jerry Heller, confirmed talks were ongoing with both distributors, but declined further comment.

NOTED: Rick Shoemaker has been promoted to executive vice president, creative , for Warner/Chappell Music. At the music publishing giant he will focus on A&R, artist development, marketing and promotion, as well as film, TV and commercial exploitation.

Independent rap marketing and promotion firm Round the Globe Music Ltd. has expanded into publicity and has hired Lauren Coleman as national director of publicity. Among the firm’s clients: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, N.W.A, Geto Boys and Kris Kross … Asylum Records has appointed Michelle Myers senior director of marketing and creative services in Nashville. Myers previously worked at MCA Records/Nashville.

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